Vietnamese food in New Orleans made the leap to mainstream in a big way, moving from the staple of ethnic Vietnamese enclaves to a foodie phenom, the inspiration for contemporary chefs and an everyday craving for New Orleanians of all stripes. For those just starting to explore, pho, the ambrosial beef and rice noodle soup, very often is the gateway dish.
All of that helps explain why my visit last summer to an event called Pho Festival was such a delicious surprise.
Despite the name, pho is not really the focus at this festival, where it plays more of a supporting role. Instead, the event is a showcase for deeply traditional Vietnamese dishes and flavors that sit outside the normal restaurant menu rotation in this town, some stemming from family tradition, others from religious observance.
Pho Festival is back this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and event organizer Chau Tran said it will unfold along the same lines as last year. That was music to my ears. My experience last year of eating across the many booths, pausing to wash down unfamiliar dishes with cold beer and strong iced coffee, and talking to new vendors about their specialties was an unexpected delight.
If you haven’t heard of Pho Festival before, that should not be a surprise. This is a low-key, low-hype event, marketed mostly in the form of posters printed in Vietnamese and displayed at groceries and cafes.
It starts early (10 a.m.) and goes late (11 p.m.) with people eating and drinking in the gym and outside around the grounds of Mel Ott Park in Gretna, all to a soundtrack of traditional Vietnamese music.
The festival is organized by a group called Vietnamese American Community in Louisiana Inc., and food and drink sales around the festival help support a program recognizing high-achieving students. They will be honored during a ceremony at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Dare dishes, vegetarian fare
The pho is served from the Mel Ott gym’s kitchen, cafeteria style, and it’s prepared on site by Kim’s Noodle House, a restaurant nearby in Harvey.
Most of the other food is served by families, volunteers and friends, and in many cases it is prepared on site, too. People cook together at tailgate tents, over propane grills and at ad hoc picnic prep stations heaped with bushels of rice noodles and sacks of fresh herbs.
Some highlights from last year include bo la lot, a kebab of heavily seasoned beef wrapped in dark green betel leaf. Speared on skewers and grilled, they were savory, bitter and delicious. If I saw this dish at a restaurant, I’d order it in a heartbeat, but in a year of looking since the last Pho Festival, I have not found them anywhere else.
Other dishes may qualify as bucket list tastes, or even culinary dares, the stuff of weird-food travel shows. I’d put fertilized duck eggs in that category.
Called trung vit long in Vietnamese (and better known by its Filipino name balut), you eat this by cracking the top of the egg, slurping the hot egg white and then spooning up the yolk and partially formed duckling inside, adding dashes of salt and pepper. There’s the flavor of hot custard, then soft, almost gummy duck.
File that one under “acquired taste,” along with a goat blood stew that left nothing to the imagination.
Other dishes returning from last year’s lineup offer different renditions of familiar spring rolls and banh mi sandwiches, and for a festival named for a beef soup, a surprisingly large array of dishes are vegetarian.
Some of the festival stands are run by local Buddhist temples and by members of the local Cao Dai community, a religion with its roots in Vietnam.
They serve vegetarian dishes exclusively, like mushrooms encased in slippery squiggles of rice flour, spring rolls wrapped around crunchy greens and carrots, cubes of bean cake and rice cake and vegetarian pates.
Prices per dish are low, with most in the $5 to $8 range. Sample around, share a few things and if something looks unfamiliar, ask the vendors about it. This is a small, homespun festival hosted by a tight-knit community that likes to cook and eat together. Anyone who shows up with a good appetite and an inquisitive palate will fit right in.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.